Thursday, April 13, 2017

Why I'm breaking up with the ELCA

I have started and re-started this post so many times. I wish there was an easy way to say this. I used to love the ELCA. But I don't anymore.

This is my story of how I broke up with the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America.

I have literally been a lifelong Lutheran. I was baptized at just over one month old at Hope Lutheran Church, in Bozeman, MT. As a child, church was a place of comfort and belonging. I played my trombone in the church. I was an active member of youth group. I went to Lutheran bible camp. "Lutheran" to me always had connotations of warmth and home.

I went to a Lutheran liberal arts college. I spent six summers working at two different Lutheran bible camps. I participated in a  Lutheran volunteer program for a year. I used to be proud to be a Lutheran.

Just before I turned 30 I followed the call to seminary. I attended a Methodist seminary, because it was in Denver and so was I. I entered into candidacy, the process that prepares seminarians to become pastors.  I had a wonderfully supportive candidacy committee. They nurtured me and helped me to grow. Seminary was a great experience. I loved Clinical Pastoral Education. I loved my internship. I got clarity on what God was calling me to do, which is the hope of any vocation, and I learned that I was called to be a hospital chaplain.

This is not acceptable in the eyes of the ELCA. 

Chaplaincy is considered a "specialized ministry" in the ELCA. Other ministries in this category are military chaplaincy, campus ministry, and outdoor ministry.  Before you can receive a call to specialized ministry (a piece of fancy paper that allows you to receive ELCA benefits, pension, and so on), you are required to serve as a parish pastor for three years. This is referred to as the "3 year rule."

I have heard from several bishops, who shall remain nameless, the following with regards to this rule:

"It is the only way that you will learn how to be a Lutheran leader."
"The parish is the location of the ministry of word and sacrament."
"We have a clergy shortage in parishes."
"We need first call pastors to be in congregations that could not otherwise afford them." (ie: cheap labor)
"The truest calling to the ministry of word and sacrament is to be a parish pastor."
"Every one else has had to do it, and so do you."

But somehow, something magical happens after three years in a parish that allows you to do specialized ministry.

I will admit that I have known about this rule since I entered seminary. I also knew that it would be extraordinarily difficult to bypass. I will own that.  However, if your bishop is willing to bring an exception regarding this 3 year rule to the other bishops, the Council of Bishops, it is likely that your exception will be granted.  This is particularly frustrating because different bishops are more rigid gatekeepers than other bishops. In other words, if your bishop likes you, they will bring an exception on your behalf. If your bishop doesn't like you, you are out of luck.

This year I found myself with a full-time chaplain job and only 6 months of parish ministry experience. (Because the yearlong parish internship doesn't count as experience.) I also found myself in trouble with my bishop.

When I asked if an exception to the three years rule could be made, I was denied. I was also advised to "leave this denomination if you can't follow the rules." Shortly thereafter I was thanked for my "caring and compassionate ministry in this city." Which feels like a kick in the stomach, given that this same ministry is not recognized as Word and Sacrament until three years have passed while working in a parish.

This denomination needs to evolve or it will die. The ministry of word and sacrament isn't confined to a church. The role of parish pastor is just one expression of word and sacrament ministry. It is not possible to make every candidate fit a parish-shaped hole. Just because you have open congregations that cannot afford to pay a pastor with more experience doesn't mean that you should force people into serving parishes who have another calling.

I am a chaplain in my soul. I love my work. It gets me out of bed every day and I fall asleep satisfied every night. I can point to tangible things that I do to alleviate suffering in this broken world every single day. I am happily doing ministry, perhaps some of the best evangelism there is, at the bedside of my patients. I hear from many people that having a chaplain at the bedside of their dying loved one is such a comfort, and might inspire them to return to a church. 

I am doing God's work. I am doing sacred, beautiful, painful, and holy work. It is not in a parish. It does not directly support a congregation. I am doing the thing that I simply must do. 

And so, because the denomination of my baptism, confirmation, first communion, and ordination will not recognize this work, I am breaking up with the ELCA. 

Wednesday, March 22, 2017

On Talking to Children About Death and grief

Recently, some of my online groups have been talking about how to talk to children about death and grief. I realized that I am in a unique position with my work at the intersection of life and death to share what I have learned, since I visit with many children and their families about death and grief.

I have found that the resource, "What Will I Tell the Children?" published by the University of Nebraska Medical Center has been one of the most useful pieces of literature for me.

Here are some of the things that I have learned in my work as a hospital chaplain about how best to support children with regards to the death of a loved one.

1. The importance of security and secure attachments cannot be stated enough. If the child is experiencing the death of a parent, they need security that they will be cared for.  They need to know that adults will meet their needs. It is best to explicitly say this. It can be as simple as, "I know your mom has cared for you up until now, but now we, your aunt and uncle, will be taking care of you. You will live with us."  If the child is experiencing the death of a grandparent or other relative, they might feel like their parents could die too.  Listen to these fears because they are real. Share that while everyone will die someday, that time will likely not be for a very long time.

2. Help your child to say goodbye  This can take place at the bedside or at the funeral service. Encourage the child to say goodbye in their own way.  The Four Gifts of Dying ("I love you", "Thank You", "I'm Sorry" and "Goodbye") are as appropriate for children as they are for adults. If the death was sudden, encourage the child to write or dictate a letter to the person that died. It can be buried or cremated.

3. Give accurate, age-appropriate information about the dying process Use simple concrete language. Do not use euphemisms such as "lost" or "passed." Do not be afraid to say "Dead" or "Death." Talk about how once someone has died, they do not hurt anymore. Be prepared for questions like "What happens after death?" and "Where does the body go?" It is okay to let your child know that you do not have all the answers.

4. Keep the lines of communication open  Let your child know that they are always welcome to talk. Talking about the loss of their loved one is important and won't cause additional pain. You can say, "I miss Grandpa too. Do you remember some fun times we had together?" 

5. Enlist the help of outside resources  Involve your child's school (principal, social worker and school psychologist), church (if relevant), and therapists (such as play therapists or family therapists).  Let your child know that they are many people who care about their well-being.

6. Normalize Grief  Let your child know that it is okay to feel sad, angry, or happy. Sometimes it is possible to feel all those feelings at the same time. Say that the intensity of these feelings will come and go and whatever they are feeling is okay.

7. Understand the long-ranging concerns Children and teenagers who are losing loved ones might be concerned about the future. They might ask, "Where will we spend Christmas now that Grandma is dead?" or "Who will walk me down the aisle at my wedding if Dad is dead?" Provide love and reassurance. Recognize that birthdays, holidays and other special days such as graduations, proms and weddings will come with grief.

Monday, March 06, 2017

On listening

My online friend, and fellow worker at the intersection of life and death, Caleb Wilde, said something profound the other day.  He said, "Sometimes the only answer is a deeply listening ear."

One of the things that Clinical Pastoral Education (CPE) trains out of you is the impulse to fill spaces with words. It is a human impulse to want to say something comforting or meaningful or give an answer. People of faith are particularly terrible about doing this.  The motivation behind it is generally pure, to offer comfort, but it shuts people down.

I spend lots of time sitting in silence.  People often tell me, "your job must be so hard" or "how do you do it?" And my answer is that nothing that I do is exceptionally difficult, but it is not easy.

There are many, many times that I say nothing at all. I bear silent, compassionate witness to suffering.  I speak words of comfort, but I give no answers. Because they are not mine to give.  I provide education, such as about the physical symptoms of dying, but I never provide predictions. But most of the time I just listen.  Perhaps this is what makes my job difficult.

I believe it is possible to be accustomed to the physical challenges of this job (to cease being disturbed by trauma or the sights, sounds and smells that accompany hospital chaplaincy. Or if I am disturbed, it no longer keeps me awake at night.) but the spiritual and emotional challenges are another thing entirely.   It is absolutely contrary to human nature to say nothing sometimes.  But part of being a spiritual caregiver is knowing when to speak and knowing when to listen.

And in the deepest suffering, words provide little comfort.  But showing up, being fully there, and not being repulsed by suffering (as it is human suffering to want to run away) is the essence of chaplaincy.  Whenever someone starts wailing in the ER or on the floors, I run toward the sounds of human grief.  I take so many grieving mothers and weeping children into my arms.  I hold the hands of dads and husbands who are crumbling in the face of trying to be strong. I listen not only with my ears, but with my soul.

Chaplaincy is when I listen to your soul with mine.

On Hope

Hope is a tricky thing when you are a chaplain. There is always the fear of "offering hope" when there might be none. Or that when people ask for hope they are really talking about something else, like extending life. 

Or they are praying for a miracle, which is a whole different topic. And begging for its own blog post.

The other day on my rounds on the behavioral health unit, a patient asked me for hope.  This was one of those moments (among many) that i stop and pray for God's guidance and that God would give me the words that I needed, because I did not want to screw this up.

But sometimes, when people ask about hope, they are asking for existential hope.  In that moment of conversation with God, where God led me was existential hope. Not the far off hope of "things will be made okay in God's time" but a hope for now.

Our behavioral health units are really good. The staff is incredibly caring. The rooms are private. But if you are there, hope is in short supply. As someone who has struggled with the existential despair of depression, I understand all too well the lack of hope that comes at times with mental illness.

What I offered to my patient was a reframing of this experience as a season. Just as the grim winter days of Minnesota slowly give way to spring, so too the grim days of depression give way to a different season. Just as we must simply hold on until spring comes, we must simply hold on until a new day dawns with depression.

This is not a passive waiting around for time to pass.  It involves making the best of what is in front of you at the time. With winter, it is about warmth and coziness and fighting back despair with hot chocolate and sledding and being with loved ones.

With mental illness, the season waiting for the season to pass is about being engaged in therapies, taking medications if that is your choice, and doing the things that have helped in the past, because odds are, they will help again.

In the situation with this patient, and in many situations that cry out for hope, hope is cyclical. It has existed once, it will likely exist again.  Sometimes we need to be reminded of that. Sometimes we need someone to hold our hope for us.  That is yet another function of that many that a chaplain performs.

When it feels like hope is far away, I can remind you that it has been there before and odds are, hope will again return.

Monday, January 09, 2017

Sabbath Coffee Tour: Vicinity Coffee (43rd Street and Nicollet)

 After a bit of a hiatus, the Sabbath Coffee Tour returns!

This morning I held my office hours at Vicinity Coffee in South Minneapolis, at 43rd and Nicollet.  This coffee shop was formerly called Bull Run Coffee. This particular location shares a building with the corporate distributors of Sebastian Joe's ice cream. Therefore, there is always ice cream available.

Vicinity Coffee roasts their own coffee.  I sampled their delicious vanilla latte (they make their own infused simple syrup).  They also have a number of specialty lattes with colorful names like Boone's Beard, Shot in the Nuts, and Fist in the Face.  The Nicollet location also has an expansive lunch menu (the Lyndale location does not have this same option). This coffee shop serves gluten free baked goods (always a plus for me!) as well as other pastries.

The espresso is smooth, the vanilla is real, and the latte goes down easily.  I am not generally one for flavored lattes, but this one is a winner. 

The coffee shop itself maximizes the use of a small space.  There is an large table with plenty of outlets and work space in the middle of the shop.  There are smaller tables, as well as a bar, for other seating options. There is free wifi. 

There is plenty of street parking available off Nicollet on either side, but no dedicated parking lot. The working environment is pretty average. Not too loud, but not too quiet.  A good place for routine tasks, but not necessarily for tasks requiring more focus.